The International Likhachev Conference

Under the Auspices of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, in St Petersburg (May 18 -20, 2017).

Transition Mysticism and Disarray

Robin Matthews 

I would like to express  thanks to the organizers for the invitation to International Likhachev Conference, under the The conference invited participants to think about the future and share thoughts. A theme I observed was that things and events are inter- dependent. In the limit, complete connectedness leads to unity. The concern of this paper is the separation between mysticism and science, which though it happened for good reasons in the natural sciences in the 15th century, has been too prolonged.

I prefer the term mysticism to spirituality, or religion even though mysticism word has been subverted into mere fantasy, obscurantism and superstition. But here I use them interchangeably.

Dialogue and polyphony

Rather than dialogue, what emerged in the conference were polyphonic voices; polyphonic in the sense of Bakhtin’s interpretation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Synchronously the conference is held in St Petersburg.

As an illustration of polyphony, we had discussions of complexity, Brexit (an absurd separation), new and old and Marxian economics, Gramsci, international distrust, transition of power in the world, marginalisation of the poor, injustice, concentration of wealth, the paradox that there is plenty in the world and poverty, the need for multi-disciplinarity, education as a public good, neo-liberalism and many others.

Transition and criticality

A central theme of the polyphonic voices was transition, from the hegemony of oligopoly powers, the USA and Russia in the pre-Cold War era to a poligopoly of major and major-minor powers.

A former prime minister of Britain when asked what worried him most, answered ‘events, events’. Tolstoy’s view of history was similar. Outcomes, rather than being the result of decisions of great leaders emerged from the interaction of many events. Understanding an era of transition requires a multi-disciplinary approach and every era is an era of transition. 

Irreducible uncertainty always exists. This is described in probabilistic terms, but often, academics in business and economics use the wrong probability distributions; favouring two parameter distributions like the normal or Bell curve to the default state of any interdependent network, which turns out to be the kind of fat tailed distribution that states that unknown and unexpected events with low probability will inevitably happen but we cannot know what or when.

Think of transitions as sand poured into conical piles that eventually collapse.  Pouring event upon event, as in a sand-pile, leads to the formation of a cone of sand grains, until, eventually a single grain, like an event from nowhere (the straw that breaks the camel’s back) causes the pile to collapse.

Small worlds

Another way of expressing the same thing is to say that the default state of global systems (like the internet, actor networks, earthquakes, and the too big to fail banks) is a small world state in which a tiny minority of actors or agents are highly connected or in the case of income and wealth, own the vast share of wealth. Small world states are highly unstable if the highly connected actors, agents or concentrations of power, income or wealth is disturbed by shocks. Events with low probability happen.


The polyphony of the conference debates were expressions of different actors adopting different grammars. Empathy can be understood as an attempt to understand things and events, through the lens of a grammar that is different from one’s own. Empathy is related to compassion; to be empathetic is to understand another in terms of a grammar that is not one’s own; compassion is to understand that different grammars exist and tolerate the fact that it is so. If empathy and compassion informed all human interactions, for example, they governed all relationships including foreign or domestic policies, the concerns of the conference, hegemony, disunity, nationalism, inequality, imperialism would to some extent evaporate.   

A thought experiment

Unity is difficult to conceive of. Unity has no meaning, because meaning implies separation between a thing or event and something else; a correspondence. Meaning is imposed by constructing a grammar.  Grammar is composed of a lexicon (a morphology, words, nouns verbs adjectives and so on) and a syntax (rules governing how words can be combined to express meaning).

A thought experiment expressing the role of grammar might go something like this. Imagine dividing a unified whole into parts and naming the parts; that is, organize it via a grammar. The subdivisions are distinct, but inter-connected. The process of dividing an inconceivable and meaningless whole is one of imposing a grammar upon it. Grammar imposes meaning. The parts have subdivisions that are inter- related, according to a sub-grammar and the parts are inter-related according to a grammar. Grammar imposes order on something that was an inconceivable whole, that becomes conceivable only by imposing a grammar.

If any number of people were asked to carry out the same thought experiment independently, they would create any number of different grammars. If they were asked to do so in groups there would be any number of different grammars. Members within a group would be able to communicate with each other but communication between groups might be difficult except in so far as grammars were similar; a Tower of Babel.

In the remainder of this note I extend grammar as a linguistic to all organizing principles; rules, conventions, laws, cultures, traditions, mindsets, memes. The extension is a subject but I ask the listener to bear with me.

Science and spirituality

The separation of spirituality or mysticism from science, physical, social and economic science, though it happened for good reasons initially in the 15th century, has been too prolonged.

It’s very clear that the global economy and organisations within the global economy are complex systems and in the limit complex systems are so interdependent that for practical purposes, they become a unified single system. But we can’t even conceive of unity, so we look at unity through the lens of a grammar that artificially divides what is really one, into separateness.


By mystical, we mean recognition that there are many spheres of being; distinguished by having different grammars. It need not be associated with the religions. In a secular age, people might be more comfortable with the interpretation of spheres of being, as the contrast between the dream world and the waking world, or between the conscious and the unconscious world, or between possible worlds and actual worlds, or multiverses and parallel universes.

Although I have detected that there is much less prejudice against the idea a connection between business or economics and spirituality than ten years ago. In Russia, I have always found less resistance. The foundation of mysticism is assent to the existence of many spheres of being, each having its own grammar, considered somewhat separate because of the impossibility of conceiving of absolute unity.


The world appears to be in disarray, poised on the cusp of transition. It is very different from the world that was imagined at the end of the Cold War. The evolution of technology has far exceeded the evolution of empathy. Empathy, we associate with unity because it involves the capacity to experience other spheres are being than our own.

Corresponding spheres of being; Bohr and Jung

We lack concepts to represent the notion of unity of spheres of being, or even to express unity within them. Spheres are being are distinguished by having different grammars. One sphere of being appears paradoxical even foolish, when we try to describe it in the grammar of another sphere. For example, trying to interpret Scriptures in a grammar appropriate to the physical world results in paradox or nonsense.

The correspondence principle of the physicist Niels Bohr and the principle of synchronicity of the psychologist Carl Jung have much in common. Niels Bohr invented correspondence to describe apparent paradoxes; according to the correspondence principle, in the limit two different systems may converge. Scholars have extended correspondence to correspondence between science and religion; between the physical and spiritual worlds.

Different spheres of being have different grammars, that it is not possible to express the essence of one sphere in the grammar of another, nor can a single grammar ever represent completely the essence of any one sphere of being. It is always necessary to call upon a meta grammar to remedy the incompleteness of grammar, and in turn the same is true of a meta grammar.

This observation is an expression of Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. No grammar is complete. And the ultimate grammar, the grammar that contains all grammars, but is not itself contained by any grammar whatsoever, is no grammar whatsoever; nothing.

The future; a sixth extinction

Perhaps we are driving towards a sixth great extinction. Another great extinction, if it happens, will result from separation; treating the biosphere, as if it were independent of events induced by homo sapiens; urbanization, economic and population growth and treating the earth merely as a source of exploitable resources. Living and non- living things, events, the biosphere and all spheres of being are so interdependent that they should be viewed as a unity.

The future; spheres of being

On one optimistic view, in so far as homo sapiens is thought of as a pattern seeking, algorithm seeking being, technology can already create algorithms better than homo sapiens and in the not too far foreseeable future create algorithms that homo sapiens might not even understand. Perhaps then, it might be asked? What else? Soul may be resuscitated as a recognized sphere of being.

The future; the beginning of the end of neo-liberalism

Returning to the assertion that often the wrong probability distributions are used in business and economics, the emergence of algorithm generating machines, plus big data may disintermediate research founded on the central limit theorem. The need for assumptions of multi normality may be eclipsed by algorithms that emerge from big data.

The polyphonic voices conference, I think all recognized that neo-liberalism as an algorithm for conducting economic affairs is in decline.



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